A Tufts University study shows what most of us probably already know intuitively: that the brain (auditory cortex) responds differently to different types of sounds. The researchers found that sounds that carry more intense emotions (which vary based on culture, personal experience and many other factors) create greater neuronal response.

Grandjean, D., Sander, D., Pourtois, G., Schwartz, S., Seghier, M. L., Scherer, K. R., & Vuilleumier, P. (2005). The voices of wrath: brain responses to angry prosody in meaningless speech. Nature neuroscience, 8(2), 145-146.

New studies on PTSD are also revealing the extremely powerful connection sound has to learning and memory.

Grosso, A., Cambiaghi, M., Concina, G., Sacco, T., & Sacchetti, B. (2015). Auditory cortex involvement in emotional learning and memory. Neuroscience Jul 23;299:45-55

Picture this…A video with lots of pictures of cute puppiesHow would the emotion change if instead of the happy sounds and music in the video, you replaced the soundtrack with “In the arms of an angel” by Sarah McLachlan?

We already know from Krashen’s work with the Affective Filter Hypothesis that negative emotions and anxiety have a negative impact on language acquisition, whereas positive feelings created by comfort and low-anxiety environments enhance language acquisition. We also know that emotion creates powerful neural connections when associated with learning (and acquisition). How can WE as teachers capitalize on this knowledge and use sound to build emotion? The most obvious answer is music. You can play music as students are entering class or during an activity. Instrumental music is best as it doesn’t distract with the meaning of the lyrics. Use music to set a “mood” for a lesson or story.     

You can also create ambient noise in the classroom to make a story or scenario feel more realistic. In the novel Noche de Oro, there is a scene where the main character, Makenna, is afraid to cross an unstable bridge over a rushing river. When we do reader’s theater of that scene, I play suspenseful music from youtube and also (in a second tab) I play the sound of rushing water.

“Half of the storytelling ability is sound.”
Joe Herrington, Principal Media Designer for Disney parks in the Imagineering department

When should you use sound in your classroom? I recommend sparingly and in novel ways. If you use different music every day, it may lose some of its effect. Occasionally set the scene with music for novelty. Use quick sounds during storytelling or reader’s theater. On youtube, have a student play a sound of a creaky door, or a doorbell, or a train whistle, or a dog barking. Whatever sound you need, youtube probably has you covered!

How can you get sound effects? The easiest way, with no prep at all, is to have a student make the sounds for you! Have a student channel his inner Michael Winslow for this! There are also lots of free apps for sound effects. You could put a student in charge of operating sound from an app on his phone! There are apps you can use to change voices too. Fun! Youtube is a wealth of sounds! Just search for the type of sound effect you want. For ambient music, I highly recommend Derrick and Brandon Fiechter.

You can also use a sound effect to highlight a word or phrase (de repente – dun dun dunnnnnnnn!). Cindy Hitz assigns gestures/sound effects to various words/structures in a story or reading and students chorally gesture/make sounds as she reads/tells the story. Martina Bex describes the process of doing a “sound effects read aloud” here!

Sound tells a story, and the emotion you set with sound supports that story.
-Jason Cushing, Sound Designer

Need even more inspiration? Check out Guy Noir!

Elementary Spanish teacher Erica Peplinski attended my “Acoustical Impact” session at iFLT in 2016. After learning about sound in the classroom, Erica began adding sound to various parts of the stories and games in her classes. Erica had this to say about her experiences:

Although I had high expectations for what sound could do, I was more than impressed at what it added to the classroom. Adding spooky music as the background for my student’s favorite game Unicornio Malo (aka Mafia) completely changed the atmosphere in the classroom. Adding the sound of rushing water, or a thunderstorm in the background when appropriate was also transformative. The impact the sounds have on the intensity level of my students leads me to believe that adding sounds to stories helps students maintain a sense of flow in the classroom. Being in a state of flow helps student to acquire the language more quickly because they are so interested in the story, they forget they are learning another language.


After seeing the impact on my students of adding sound to a lesson I was eager to try Kristy Placido’s ‘Radio Show’ style activity. I took a familiar novel and had students add sounds to it as I read it. The students loved adding the sounds, and listened and read very carefully so they could add their voice at the right time. After doing this as a class, I gave the students the same piece of the story, broke them into small groups, and let them create their own noises as a group. By this time they had heard the story enough times that they were eager to read it on their own and add their own sound effects. Each group had a slightly different take on the sound effects, and the class listened eagerly (to the same piece of the story) many times. I was able to get a ton of interesting repetitions of the same part of a story, because changing the noises made it new each time. I even recorded a few of the groups for other classes to listen to, and for students to listen to at home. It amazed me how much novel repetition I could get out of adding simple sounds (and how excited the students were to do it).


As Carol Gaab likes to say, the brain craves novelty. New research shows that we have almost 20% better retention, when old material is modified slightly (given a slightly novel aspect). I believe that adding the sound effects made the old material novel. When I tested my students on this as part of their end of the year assessment (they had to draw a picture for different parts of the story in comic strips) every single student nailed it. I thank lots of novel repetition for this (along with Kristy Placido).

Kristy Placido is the editor of CI Peek. She is the author of several novels for Spanish learners and presents workshops for teachers on teaching with comprehensible input. She has been using TPRS and comprehensible input approaches in her own classroom since 1998. Kristy teaches in Fowlerville, MI. Check out her blog at kplacido.com and follow her on twitter and facebook!

Erica Peplinski is entering her 13th year of teaching; and loves working with her Spanish students using TPRS/CI and brain-based learning techniques. When she is not working she loves spending time with her friends and family, reading, the beach, and Michigan Football. Erica teaches in Saline, MI and blogs at profepeplinski.com.



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